Blog Archives

The Sexual Harassment Reckoning, and What It Probably Won’t Mean for Poor Girls

(Not Melanie Wilson)*  

Could we be in the midst of that rarest of events — a genuine cultural tipping point? Well, maybe.

We women — and yes, I take the liberty of speaking for almost every one of us throughout the land — may have sighed wearily about the sexual harassment being described every day in the media, but we haven’t been surprised. Not really. Being female in this society (or perhaps any society) is to know intuitively, in your bones, where you exist in the hierarchy, at least relative to powerful senior men. So nothing really unexpected here. Men, even men we like and respect, can exploit their power. We’re still, as a species, learning to be civilized.

But things change, if ever so slowly. At Youth Catalytics, we’re thrilled that women (and some men, too) are speaking out about how they’ve been victimized. We also know that the group with the smallest voice and greatest vulnerability probably won’t be heard at all. We’re talking about teenage girls and young women.

About 10 years ago, we started hearing from our direct-service colleagues that the girls in their programs were facing new pressures to look and act in sexual ways. Sometimes these were young girls, still in grade school. While children in state care had always been at higher risk of sexual abuse than other kids, with all the attending behavioral fallout, it seemed like something new was happening. Something in the culture, perhaps.

So we began exploring the social forces that shape both girls’ attitudes about gender and sexuality, and the consequences for poor girls in particular. Using ‘Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girl,’ the 2007 study from the American Psychological Association as a starting point, we investigated what young women, social service providers and academics were thinking and doing about the issue.

What Are We Doing to Girls? The Early Sexualization Phenomenon and How Communities are Responding‘ was the result. We went on to conduct a girls’ video and photovoice project and to partner with the U.S. Attorney General’s Office in Vermont on a public service campaign aimed at parents and other adults in girls’ lives. (Why a state Attorney General’s office? Because it’s nearly impossible to catch and prosecute all of the out-of-state internet predators who manipulate and exploit girls online. Since the creeps are out there and they’re not stopping, the idea was to strengthen girls’ resistance to them.)

We also began a news roundup, collecting all media and academic reports of approaches that lawmakers, schools, communities, and social service agencies are taking to early sexualization.

We invite all organizations working with girls and young women to tell us what they’re doing to advance the healthy development of girls. If you’ve got an approach that recognizes and challenges the negative forces affecting girls, we want to know about it and share it. (Click ‘share what you know.’)

~ YC Research Director Melanie Wilson

*Photo by Chloe Hotaling, YC Girls’ Photovoice Project.











Posted in adolescent biology, exploitation, uncategorized

Podcast: Giving Young People the Chance — and the Budget — to Improve Their Community


Since its inception in 1999, the Greater Worcester Community Foundation’s Youth for Community Improvement project has engaged more than 180 teens in direct philanthropy. Together, these youth have made more than $285,000 in grants to over 70 nonprofit organizations in Worcester County, MA. How does YCI work? What are the benefits to the community and to the young people who participate? We caught up with six YCI team members on the University of Massachusetts/Amherst campus in June 2017 to talk about it.

They brainstorm their priorities, write their own RFPs, and make their own awards. How does it all work? Click to listen.


We interviewed (from left to right): Caitlyn Nguyen; Laura Giordano; Lauren Walsh (front left); Dorean Asuako; Diane Khong (front right); and Sarah Riley. Sarah Shugrue, YCI Staff, is at far right.

The full YCI team, 2017. YCI makes grants to organizations in the Greater Worcester (MA) area.

Posted in funding, motivational, organizational development, promising practices, uncategorized

Teen Pregnancy Prevention Programs Cut


July 22, 2017

All of us at Youth Catalytics were shocked by the notice we received on July 5,
2017, terminating our funding from US Office of Adolescent
Health as of June 30, 2017. We had just completed our first year of a five-year
award to provide capacity-building services to OAH’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention
Program grantees, a diverse group of nonprofits serving the nation’s highest-risk
young people, including homeless youth, young people in foster care and Native
American youth.

In March, we had delivered a successful national training to over 200 youth-serving
professionals, and were working collaboratively with our partners and federal
staff to produce resources to build healthier communities for young people
nationwide. Having been assured by federal staff that our funding was secure
per the Continuing Resolution through the FY2017 omnibus appropriations bills,
we had a number of trainings, coaching sessions and other capacity-building
activities scheduled or in development. All had to be canceled immediately just
as grantees were receiving notices that their own programs would be cut short by
two years, increasing the need for support from the capacity-building providers.

We believe that HHS has violated its own regulations with this action, and that
the purported termination action is not authorized by law. We hope to resolve this
matter with HHS quickly so that we can return to our work supporting evidence-based
programs. In the meantime, we applaud Sen. Patty Murray and other
legislators who are publicly questioning Secretary of Health and Human Services
Price about this decision, and more specifically about why the notification seeking
to end grants was made in advance of Congressional action on FY 2018

See  this letter, signed by Sens. Murray, Baldwin, Booker, Blumenthal, Sanders, Brown,
Leahy, Durbin, Carper, Duckworth, Hassan, Coons, Wyden, Udall, Reed, Casey, Markey,
Van Hollen, Cardin, Hirono, Heinrich, Franken, McCaskill, Warren, Klobuchar, Harris, Nelson,
Feinstein, Bennet, Shaheen, Menendez, Murphy, Whitehouse, Cortez Masio, Gillibrand,
Cantwell and Schatz.

~ Melanie Goodman, Executive Director

Posted in funding, news, uncategorized

Engaging Youth in Creating Digital Health Messages: Q& A with Kenny Neal Shults

Kenny Neal Shults has over 20 years of experience working with service organizations across the country to develop innovative strategies for engaging with vulnerable populations. He is particularly skilled at engaging young people in the creation of prevention-oriented digital messages. His organization, Connected Health Solutions, Inc., specializes in teaching agencies how to incorporate new media into their outreach and programming strategies.

Kenny Neal Schults working with a team of young people on a video project.

Q. You’ve made lots of really compelling videos with health messages for teens – how do you develop the content?
A. First, the content should be generated by the youth, not their adult partners. “Partners” is the key term here. We work with the teens to create the brand, hashtags, taglines—all the components.

Youth are very savvy media consumers and marketed to more than any other social group.  They are highly aware, and often skeptical of, content produced by adults. This means that our role as educators and service providers is no longer simply telling youth what we want them to know, but rather finding ways to produce compelling content that cuts through the bombardment of noise they see and click on every day.

Only teens have the kinds of insights agencies need in order to accurately influence behavior, so teens that produce content on your behalf must be given a great deal of latitude and trust.

Q. How do you work with youth to make videos? What’s the process?
A. The video is not the most important result; it simply provides something for participants to execute together. In doing so, they work as a group to explore whatever issue they have chosen to address, and identify solutions, obstacles, and methods for motivating viewers to change behaviors. In turn, the youth establish appropriate norms that they then internalize and incorporate into their own lives and behaviors.

It’s important to create a physically and emotionally safe space where teens get to experience belonging and ownership through group agreements that they make and enforce themselves. Some youth feel less vulnerable through activities that encourage sharing about a character or “other teens,” rather than themselves. One of the best collaboration tools for creating and crafting the content is a closed, unsearchable Facebook group that includes all the content creators (the youth and the adults) who can all produce, comment on and approve the content for the videos.

Q. What are some of the key lessons teens learn in the process of developing content?
A. When you ask teens to develop content for their peers, the tendency is for them to regurgitate the same finger-wagging messaging that has been targeted at them for so long. Part of what you need to do with teens is teach them how to effectively reach their peers by generating messaging that is appealing and not alienating. It’s very important that teens understand how to address their audience—they have to know what their audience is dealing with, what they believe, what they value.

The video content also has to adequately reflect the problem that they are trying to tackle. Teen pregnancy, going to college; what’s the problem they are trying to address? And what’s the solution? Content must supply a potential answer like, use a condom or go to a family planning clinic.

Emotions are essential, so you have to hook your audience as quickly as possible; emotion is what people remember. When you understand these core principals of social marketing, you can produce content that will make people want to change their behaviors.

Q. How can agencies make videos and PSAs on their own?
A. Agencies don’t need to produce slick, professional ads to utilize social media to generate awareness of and access to their services. Digital media can easily be produced on phones and tablets. There are many fun and easy mobile tools that can be used to make dynamic, eye-catching media, like Videoshop, GIF Maker, Nutshell, and Stop Motion. The quality is less important than the relevance and resonance it must have in order to effectively reach the intended audience.

This doesn’t mean that youth should be left to struggle with all of the shooting and editing, but they can develop the concepts themselves, write scripts, and conduct pre-production activities like casting and location scouting.

Q. How do you disseminate the videos you work on and get teens to watch them?
A. Video is the new universal language. Most teens access content on their phones, so you have to create media that reaches teens [where they are] and encourage them to distribute the videos through their online social networks.

We’ve made a number of 5- to 7-minute videos, but because they are considered long, it can be challenging to get teens to watch the whole thing. So, making short, Instagram-length content taken from lengthier social media campaigns to entice teens to watch a full video is a great way to start a social media strategy and engage teens.

Q. Let’s say I work for an organization that wants to recruit local youth to work on a video project. How do we do that? How do we keep youth engaged once we’ve got them?
A. An agency can find youth through peer outreach workers, agency-sponsored theater groups, educators, drop-in centers, etc. Agencies can offer incentives and meals: small prizes and food go a long way to get teens in the room. Offering the chance to win a “grand prize” to participants who perform well is a tremendous motivator. A tablet or pair of trendy headphones is a relatively small one-time cost an agency can offer in order to recruit and keep youth in the process.

Youth are drawn to and participate in media development projects for a large variety of reasons. Some youth just want to learn media skills, others need community service hours, others want to include the activities on their college transcripts, and some merely want connection with their peers. Lots of teens are aspiring actors and filmmakers and are fascinated by the process and their prospects for getting into the media industry. When youth are rewarded for their successes and given abundant positive reinforcement, they want to keep coming to the meetings and activities.

Q. Can you talk about a few of the challenges agencies can face in doing this work?
A. Understandably, many agencies experience trepidation when it comes to producing materials that represent their agency and its mission. Controversial or provocative social marketing content can result in backlash from the community and even funders. Finding a balance between what teens want to create and produce and what an agency feels comfortable with can be challenging. However, when the ideas of teens are valued these negotiations teach them a great deal about how to compromise, the realities of collective creative ventures, the opposition many agencies face in their communities, and level-playing-field interactions with adults.

See some of the video campaigns that Connected Health Solutions, Inc. have created with and for young people.

This resource was made possible by Grant Number TPSAH160004-01-00 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Health. The views expressed do not reflect the official policies of the Office of Adolescent Health, or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; nor does mention of trade names, commercial practices, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. Any statements expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Adolescent Health, or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


Posted in promising practices, uncategorized

Words that Can Help Your Program, Words that Definitely Won’t


We all know that jargon can deaden messages. It’s hard to even pay attention, let alone carefully listen, to someone who’s using a lot of technical or insider language. Take my husband. He’s a technical advisor to the nuclear power industry, and when he gets home from the office, our conversations usually go something like this:

Me: How’d your day go?

Him: I got 41-03 rev 6 wrapped up, but we’re still seeking alignment with the regulator on some of the deltas from the last cycle.

Depending on how I feel, I’ll have one of two reactions — “Huh?” or, more often, “Whatever,” at which point he stops talking and I stop listening.

So what’s this got to do with those of us who dwell in the much cozier world of youth services and teen pregnancy prevention? Surely our own language is much more accessible, right?

Well … not necessarily. With all the very best intentions and for the best possible reasons, most of us routinely use phrases that aren’t helpful in telling the story of the work we do and the people we help.

Here’s a little quiz. In each of these instances, what’s really being said?

1. Many of the youth in my program have experienced a lack of empowerment. To counter that, we support them with a continuum of services.

2. A young woman came to us having experienced early sexual initiation without her consent. Fortunately we’ve been able to offer her various supports.

3. We provide support to young people so they can make wise decisions.

Each of these statements is true, at least in the most basic sense. And each reflects our field’s values. After all, we respect and honor young people, and want to celebrate their strengths. We don’t want to use sensational or lurid details in describing their lives; instead, we want to give them the dignity that others may have denied them.

Yet look at the words in blue. We have to ask ourselves whether using vague, sterile language to mask the reality of their experiences is really doing them justice. If we want people to care about our work — especially those outside our field, whose support we want and need — then we need to speak plainly and concretely, not to sensationalize or pander, but to simply tell the truth. Just as we “meet youth where they’re at,” we also need to meet non-professionals where they’re at.

So in the spirit of figuring out more powerful ways to describe our work, I offer these rewrites of these sentences. They’re in italics, below the original statements.

1. Many of the youth in my program have experienced a lack of empowerment. To counter that, we support them with a continuum of services.
It’s typical for the kids in my program to tell me they don’t know anyone who’s gone to college, or anyone who’s had a career. They have this idea that there’s no path to these things, that kids “like them” can’t have that kind of success in life. We tell them they can, and show them how.

2. A young woman came to us having experienced early sexual initiation without her consent. Fortunately we’ve been able to offer her various supports.
A 14-year-old girl came to us last month. Her stepfather sexually abused and impregnated her, and both she and her baby daughter were removed to foster care. Now she’s in high school and her new boyfriend wants to have sex. No one understands what she’s been through, so no one can talk to her. That’s where we come in.

3. We provide support and enrichment to young people so they can make wise decisions.
The children in my program come from poor neighborhoods where it’s common for teenagers to have babies before even finishing high school. We provide college student mentors to work with them one-on-one, so over time, they can see there’s a big world out there and lots of amazing things are possible for them. But they’ve got to protect themselves from risky relationships and unintended pregnancy so they can get there. We make sure they understand exactly how to do that.

There are obviously some important issues to think about — issues that may require special consideration, such as protecting privacy. But we can both do that and tell stories that reveal rather than obscure the issues we see every day.

The bottom line is that we want people outside our field to understand what’s at stake, and to care as much as we do about the young people in our programs. Changing the way we talk to them is hard, and it takes practice. But it’s important. If you need some help thinking about your communication style, let us know. We’re eager to hear from you.

~ Melanie Wilson, YC Director of Research


This resource was made possible by Grant Number 1 TPSAH160004-01-00 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Health. The views expressed do not reflect the official policies of the Office of Adolescent Health, or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; nor does mention of trade names, commercial practices, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. Any statements expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Adolescent Health, or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Posted in uncategorized

Is Open Table Group Mentoring the Aftercare Solution We’ve Been Waiting for?

About a year ago, a small national organization called Open Table found its way to our door. They’d been referred by a mutual friend at SAMHSA, a higher-up there we knew from his days as director of mental health services in Connecticut.

He knew we were interested in how faith communities could be harnessed on behalf of vulnerable young people; we’d done three large studies on the topic (within the broader context of spiritual-based programs in youth services). He also knew that Open Table was potentially powerful — so powerful that SAMHSA itself had decided to fund demonstration projects in its Systems of Care communities around the country.

We, of course, are primarily interested in young people. What intrigued us was that, at first blush, Open Table seemed capable of doing the one thing that the traditional social service system had never been able to do: stick with youth over time, not as paid professionals but as actual friends.

At first blush, Open Table seemed capable of doing the one thing that the traditional social service system had never been able to do: stick with youth over time, not as paid professionals but as actual friends.

The idea isn’t terribly complicated. Open Table partners with an interested congregation that commits to hosting one or more year-long “Tables.” Congregations buy a program license, and six to eight volunteers per Table are trained in how to support a person transitioning from poverty. The congregation partners with a  local social service agency, and from that agency gets referrals to clients who both want and are deemed ready to receive help. Open Table recipients (in faith-community fashion, they are referred to as “Brother” or “Sister”) are diverse: in the seven years since Open Table began, recipients have been homeless LGBTQ youth, ex-offenders re-entering the community, single mothers in recovery from substance addiction, and young people aging out of foster care. They may have mental health issues, or addictions, or felonies behind them; no matter their circumstances, all of them are looking for a way to move forward.

In congregational settings, private homes and restaurants, Table volunteers begin meeting with their Brother or Sister once a week, where they work through a structured series of steps based on the recipient’s personal goals. Each Table’s progress is closely monitored and supported by the program itself, which employs mental health consultants. Tables are not about treatment, though, or even social work — and that distinction is important. It is skilled group mentoring that emphasizes friendship above all.

In the language of our field, Open Table provides “aftercare,” and organic aftercare at that, based on real relationships with people who are personally invested in caring. The assumption is that Table volunteers bring two essential things to the process: 1) their “human capital,” or the connections and know-how to navigate ordinary life, and 2) their willingness to non-judgmentally walk alongside a person experiencing profound yet surmountable problems. Evaluations to date show that for the recipients, the Table process is a bridge to education, better jobs, and long-term relationships. For volunteers, the process provides eye-opening exposure to the realities of poverty.

(For those wondering, as we did, about the religious content: Open Table doesn’t allow proselytizing and isn’t about winning converts. In fact, it doesn’t allow any religious language whatsoever unless requested by the person being helped.)

We were so interested in the potential of Open Table that we became evaluators to it, joining a group of consultants that includes John VanDenBerg, the wraparound services pioneer. For our part, we’re going to keep talking about Open Table and looking hard at how much of the ‘missing piece’ it can be for young people trying to find their footing. We encourage youth service providers to take a look as well.

By Melanie Wilson
Youth Catalytics Director of Research

How does Open Table look in practice? Watch Jessica, a former foster youth who became homeless after aging out of the system in Texas, explain it.


Posted in evaluation, promising practices, uncategorized

Our All-Season Movement


In 1981, Youth Catalytics set out to improve the lives of vulnerable young people by lifting up the programs and professionals who work with them. Since then, the world has changed under our feet. Generally, those changes have been for the good. Sped by advances in technology, our social and biological sciences have matured, producing an enormous body of evidence about what actually works to move young people toward success. Government policy on youth has shaped and reshaped itself many times over, usually, if not always, arching toward progress. Predictably, funding for our programs has waxed and waned, at times threatening to weaken us, but never actually doing it.

Through all this, nine U.S. Presidential elections have come and gone. Five different administrations, with a sixth now to come.  And we’re still here.

This is what’s also still here: Our unwavering commitment to the thousands of people who work tirelessly every day to build strong communities for our next generation.

In the 1970s, our field barely existed. Now it does, because we built it. And we’re not simply fumbling along, doing our best. We’re being effective. There’s incalculable power in that.

It’s easy to get discouraged. Political winds blow this way and that, and we know from long experience that they can blow hard, either propelling us forward or forcing us back a bit. We don’t know what’s going to happen this time around, but let’s look beyond any single moment in time to review our overall trajectory as a field.

In the 1970s, there were no shelters or services for homeless young people, and no public funding to support them. It took dogged effort and patience, but we changed that. Today a robust network of federally and state-funded services works every day to lift vulnerable young people out of poverty and give them a chance for a healthy and productive adulthood. (Yes, that network is still too small, and we acknowledge that. But it exists, and it’s not going away.)

In the 1980s, teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. were shockingly high — the highest in the industrialized  world. By 1990 the rate had climbed to a peak of 116 births per thousand. We recognized that having a baby too young was often catastrophic for parents and children alike, and we went to work. What happened? By 2011, the rate had fallen to 52 births per thousand, the lowest number in at least four decades.We tried hard, in lots of different ways, to move the needle for young people, and we succeeded.

In the 1990s, dropout rates among minority students in some high schools were well over 50%. Consider Hispanic teens, the group most likely to drop out. In 1991, 36% of Hispanic youth left school before graduating. Today, 11% do. Perfect? No. But much better. We said we wanted more for our young people, and we figured out how to get it. We won something real for them, something of lasting value, and everyone, not least society itself, is benefiting.

In the 1970s, our field barely existed. Now it does, because we built it. And we’re not simply fumbling along, doing our best. We’re being effective. There’s incalculable power in that, and we can’t be turned back.

So in times of discontent, remember this: We can make things better for youth. We have made things better. Balky systems and unpredictable funding cycles aren’t bigger than us; as a movement, we are bigger than them. We have survived and flourished in all seasons, and we will continue to do so.


~ The Youth Catalytics Team

Posted in motivational, news, uncategorized

Communicating on Teen Pregnancy Prevention: It’s Our Job


preg1For 40 years, Youth Catalytics’ sole mission has been to improve the well-being of vulnerable young people. Almost always, that’s involved strengthening organizations in direct contact with youth — schools, foster care systems, mentoring programs, homeless shelters, jobs programs, juvenile justice services. These settings differ in important ways, but in a fundamental sense, they’re all attempting to do the same thing: give disadvantaged young people the chance for a better future.

In our work, we’ve developed deep expertise in youth homelessness, adolescent brain development, trauma-informed care, and social-emotional well-being. In the last five years, we’ve come to specialize in another area as well: teen pregnancy prevention.

That’s why we’re so pleased to announce that, this summer, we were awarded a grant by the federal Office of Adolescent Health to help teen pregnancy prevention programs improve the way they communicate with local communities, families, researchers and funders. We join four other organizations — Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, the University of Massachusetts/Donahue Institute, EngenderHealth, and the University of Michigan/Adolescent Health Initiative — in growing the overall capacity of these programs, helping them be more efficient and effective.

Individually and as a group, we will be supporting 84 organizations around the country working with 1.2 million youth in a wide array of settings, including elementary, middle and high schools, alternative schools, college, after-school programs, teen health clinics, and foster care and juvenile detention systems. Together these organizations are implementing 27 different evidence-based pregnancy prevention programs. Twenty-four organizations are rigorously testing new approaches, and two are developing entirely new programs.

Why is this work important? In 2010-2014, OAH’s very first cohort of pregnancy prevention grantees delivered services to almost 500,000 young people. (Youth Catalytics was among that cohort, leading delivery of the Teen Outreach Program® to high-risk foster care youth in Connecticut.) In those five years, the national teen pregnancy rate fell by 29%. Were these programs alone responsible for that impressive drop? Probably not. But they certainly helped. By funding only programs that actually work, and aiming them narrowly at the subpopulations of youth most at risk of early pregnancy, OAH has created a culture of  scientific legitimacy around sexuality education, taking it out of the realm of morality and into the realm of public health. And that’s been good for youth, their families and their communities.

Simply put, these programs matter. Because they’re important, helping programs operate with fidelity, establish community support, communicate their successes to others, and sustain themselves when the project is over is important, too. That’s what our work is about. We can’t wait to get started.

Posted in adolescent biology, news, uncategorized

Hacking Our Way into Child Welfare

Two weeks ago I attended the White House Hackathon for Foster Care. It was an amazing event. I mean that literally — I was amazed. Yes, technology can connect, edify, make cumbersome processes more efficient, collect kaleidoscopic facts into coherent overviews. We know that. And child welfare has lagged behind other sectors in adopting technology to improve its work. We know that, too. That’s not news.

Here’s what was: throwing a load of tech entrepreneurs together with a bunch of foster care policy makers and administrators. No two professional sectors could possibly be more different. One is bursting with can-do energy, determined to solve any problem that comes its way because that’s how it stays in business. The other is resigned to can’t-do stagnation because for a million reasons, change is just too hard. Change is expensive, it’s complicated, it’s annoying, and it seems always — always — to involve lots of lawyers.

Because you can’t really share, crunch and reorganize data across state agencies.

You can’t really have caseworkers checking their clients’ progress on smartphone apps.

You can’t really develop a web platform that helps foster families and foster kids get along better.

Web-based cognitive behavioral therapy? Please.

But as we heard at the May 26-27 Hackathon, some progressive states, cities, counties and private nonprofits have done all these things and more. First-generation college students are being ‘nudged’ through their application processes by automated text messages; young people in foster care are being mentored via smartphone; young women at high risk for unplanned pregnancy are being reminded via text to refill their prescriptions for birth control pills. Suicidal youth are flocking to textlines, and homeless youth are checking for available shelter beds and booking them by phone.

Colab's hacking team. In 12 hours, these three coders from California developed an app for homeless youth. Next step: piloting it.

Colab’s hacking team. In 12 hours, these three coders from California developed an app for homeless youth. Next step: piloting it.

The technology ‘screen’ is giving youth much-desired anonymity while offering a chance for real connection to real people. The young person decides how far and fast to go.

And it turns out that data-based technological solutions — the cornerstone of efforts by states to really get a handle on, say, so called cross-system youth — are not only possible, but they’re legal, too. Laws preventing agencies from sharing information are more phantom than fact, it seems — and HHS officials have agreed, saying they will create new guidance encouraging state agencies to share information whenever doing so would help them serve a child or family better.

The tech companies who sent hacking teams to the White House — Microsoft, Colab and others — promised ongoing support. It seems that, like lots of other potential allies, they’re more than willing to contribute time and talent if child welfare professionals can frame the projects for them.

As we at Youth Catalytics work with our partner Think of Us — one of the sponsors of the event — on a relationship coaching app for youth in foster care, we’re keeping a close eye on these heartening developments. As one speaker pointed out, the future is already here, it just hasn’t been evenly distributed.

Now it’s child welfare’s turn.

~ Melanie Reisinger Wilson








Posted in news, uncategorized

Pregnancy Prevention for Youth in Special Circumstances: What It Takes to Do It Right


wymancoverWe’re excited to share a resource for teen pregnancy prevention programs that we developed for Wyman, based on our and others’ experiences implementing the Teen Outreach Program® with young people in foster care and juvenile justice settings (or who have other characteristics that make them special). Biggest takeaway? Working with young people in special situations requires a whole new set of tools and approaches, some adapted to the young people themelves and some to the larger systems that serve them.

We loved all the inteviews, connections and new learning, and look forward to helping other agencies learn from our and our colleagues’ experiences!

See Implementing the Teen Outreach Program® with Special Populations: Lessons Learned from Seven Youth-Serving Agencies

Posted in evaluation, news, organizational development, promising practices, uncategorized

InnovationNext and Sex Ed for Foster Youth

IN for twitter

We’re excited to say that Youth Catalytics and our partner, Think of Us, have been awarded an InnovationNext grant (funded by OAH and administered by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy)! We’re thrilled — both because we think youth in foster care have special needs and issues that aren’t addressed by current pregnancy prevention programs, and because our team brings such a rich mix of personal and professional experience to the table on this issue.

Though we’ve produced lots of products for and with young people, until now we’ve never dabbled in ‘design thinking’ — a research and planning process that requires unusually deep and empathetic engagement with our target audience. That means we’ll be spending lots of time with young people, not in artificial focus group-type experiences, but in their regular worlds, talking, hanging out, and learning to see life through their eyes.

See the 10 winning InnovationNext teams, and off we go to a summer of great work!

Posted in uncategorized

The Woo-Woo’s Gone Out of Mindfulness


Back in the day — that being roughly 12 years ago — mindfulness was still slightly woo-woo. Nobody knew much about what it was or did, if in fact it did anything. It was creeping into youth programs under many different guises, including yoga, guided visualization and even martial arts. Program-based prayer and other kinds of religious expression (remember, this was way back in the Bush administration, when faith-based programming was on the move) wore a costume of a different sort. But even there, mindfulness and “letting go” was what lay underneath.

Now, of course, mindfulness is better (if not thoroughly) understood. It’s gone mainstream. Evidence is this new piece from the Harvard Business Review, surely the ultimate indication of legitimacy.

In our current era of expanded understanding of adolescent neuroscience, it’s worth appreciating how far we’ve come. It’s also instructive to look back on these still-illuminating studies that we, under our old name of New England Network for Child, Youth & Family Services, conducted of mindfulness practices in youth-serving agencies. (One measure of the long cultural path we’ve travelled? In the early 2000s, these practices were still known as “spiritual.”)

This work was groundbreaking at the time, and is still notable for its rigor and scope, and for the description of dozens of youth programs utilizing mindfulness practices with vulnerable young people. Indeed, to our knowledge, these studies are still the only ones of their kind. Take a look. We promise you’ll find something of use for your program.

practice-unbound-coverPractice Unbound: A Study of Secular Spiritual and Religious Activities in Work with Adolescents. (2002). This report provides one of the first comprehensive looks at how agencies working with troubled adolescents utilized mindfulness activities. Of a random sample of nearly 200 youth-serving agencies, reaching from the U.S. eastern seaboard to Alaska, Hawaii and Guam, 60% report using at least one secular activity — guided visualization and 12-step groups are the most common — and 35% offer at least one religious activity. Both secular and faith-based organizations that already offer spiritual activities strongly support them and intend to do more, but say they need more training.

deep-coverA Part of You So Deep: What Vulnerable Adolescents Have to Say About Spirituality. (2004) A Part of You So Deep focuses on teens themselves, using extensive focus group interviews, personal interviews and surveys to uncover their experiences of spirituality and their attitudes toward a variety of spiritual activities, both secular and religious. The findings, full of passion, confusion, disappointment, and yearning, illuminate the complicated inner world of our society’s most vulnerable teenagers, and offer crucial insight to counselors, teachers and anyone else committed to nurturing the spiritual lives of young people.

heartandsoulcoverAdolescent Heart & Soul: Achieving Spiritual Competence in Youth-Serving Agencies. (2005). This first-ever study of spiritual programming in youth-service agencies describes how spirituality programs — both secular and religious — look in agencies that do them well. These ‘spiritually competent’ agencies recognize spirituality as an important component of a holistic therapeutic approach, and deliver their spiritual programs in conformance with widely accepted standards of clinical care and the principles of youth development.



Posted in promising practices, uncategorized

‘Life is My Organization’



Adults are okay, if you have to spend your days doing professional things. But lots of times, I miss young people.

I was reminded of that while flipping through evaluations from one of our Youth Thrive® trainings in Vermont. Digging in, I could see they were amazingly good. School social workers and safety officers, substance abuse counselors, family support specialists, mentoring program directors, workforce development managers — they loved this training. Excellent.

Then I came to an evaluation from the sole teenager who had attended. She’d dutifully filled in every line, answering even the questions about her organization and job title.

I haven’t stopped smiling since I saw them.

(By the way, it won’t surprise you that she loved the training, too. I know because she adorned her compliments with stars and hearts.)


 – Melanie Wilson




Posted in adolescent biology, evaluation, uncategorized

What’s the Future of ‘Pay for Success’?

PFS-Mass.WASHINGTON DC — Utah’s just-completed Pay for Success pilot is the talk of the town in DC, at least among a certain subset of policy researchers.

Not familiar with it? The Salt Lake County, Utah, High-Quality Preschool Program sought to increase the number of low-income children in the county who started kindergarten on track and ready to learn. Based on predictive assessments, the county estimated that, absent of some special effort, 110 of the 600 low-income children in its study cohort would need special education in kindergarten. Their pilot, funded through an outcome-focused public-private investment mechanism called Pay for Success (PFS), determined to change those numbers, and it did. After a year of the PFS-sponsored program, only one – yes, one – child was found to need special education. The win for the children was also a win for the taxpayers. The county says it has saved $281,000 in education expenses; presumably those savings will rise if children stay in mainstream classes over the long run.

Under the PFS financing model, social service providers sit down with public funders, private investors, and a project intermediary. Together they look at the evidence that the provider’s approach works, set numerical targets for success, hash out the cost of running and evaluating the program, and then make a deal. The private investors front the full cost of the program; the provider rigorously tracks outcomes, with the help of outside experts; and a third-party evaluator determines if, after a pre-established period of time, the program has indeed succeeded. If it has, the government steps in and pays the investors back, with interest, sometimes over an extended period as more and more savings are realized.

As a model for funding nonprofit services, Pay for Success is in its infancy in the United States, and the first few projects – those just completed and those still underway– are under intense scrutiny.

A panel at the Urban Institute this week spoke to a standing-room-only crowd (a crowd which, several speakers noted, could have fit into a supply closet just a few years ago) about the future of the model. The panel included Shaun Donovan, director of the OMB (a PFS enthusiast); the Salt Lake County mayor Ben McAdams; Antony Bugg-Levine, of the Nonprofit Finance Fund; and other policy experts and bureaucrats working with the model. Together, they made an impressive case that Pay for Success can demolish funding silos and create powerful new relationships capable of driving dramatic improvement in services. There’s also a lot that it can’t do, or probably can’t do. In other words, much remains unknown about the true potential of PFS.

The Upside

The PFS approach is highly appealing, at least for some types of projects. It can lead to:

  • More effective services. While government may tolerate mediocre results, private investors will not. Private money focuses attention on results and better aligns incentives and expectations. Service providers are no longer paid to provide a service. They’re paid to produce success. For their part, city, county, state and federal funders get to do more than expand, contract or defund programs and ensure grantee compliance; they get to truly change the lives of the people in their communities.
  • The vigorous use of independent evaluators. This is a very good thing, since programs that conduct or contract out their own evaluations can’t be expected (though surprisingly often, they are) to reach conclusions that are truly objective.
  • More honest conversations between providers and funders. Instead of writing grants that promise the moon, PFS-based discussions focus on what’s actually achievable. The three parties at the table – government, the provider, and the investors – are interested only in what’s concrete and realistic. If outcomes are in fact better than anticipated, as in the Salt Lake County project, that’s great, and everybody has learned something about what is possible. But PFS is an opportunity for government and the private sector to peek behind the curtain of social programs, and they can’t help but gain a more nuanced appreciation of the challenges that make progress difficult.
  • Full funding for programs. It goes without saying that most nonprofits are underfunded, and that public funding rarely pays the full cost of any particular set of services. That means that providers must divert a significant share of their energy and money to fundraising. Anyone who’s ever, say, dived into Boston Harbor in January to raise funds for some program or other knows this all too well. (Yes, that was me. I did that.) Under the PFS approach, providers can get full financial support for a program, eliminating the burden of chasing additional grants or gifts.
  • PFS has bipartisan political support. To liberals, PFS provides evidence that difficult social problems actually can be solved; to conservatives, it shifts both risk and reward to the private sector. PFS can also reduce public cynicism by promoting the expenditure of taxpayer dollars only on programs that demonstrably work.
  • Providers can do their work as they see fit. In PFS projects, service providers aren’t told what to provide or how to provide it. If something isn’t working, they can change it in mid-course. There’s no going back to a program officer hoping for a thumbs-up; the provider is the expert and they decide.

The Downside

Yet if PFS continues to expand, either as a discrete funding mechanism or as a general philosophy that shapes funding for social services, there are obvious reasons for concern.

  • A self-defeating focus on data. Just as a pervasive, laser-beam focus on outcomes could be a game-changer for the social service sector, it could also undermine the validity of services whose impacts are important but unmeasurable. Everyone in human services knows that proving success can be phenomenally difficult, and not just for the obvious reasons. A program may produce fabulous success, but not necessarily of the type, or on the scale, it intended to. Or it may indeed produce the success it desired, but the success may go undocumented because the provider didn’t apply the right tools and protocols. Or – a much worse scenario, and a common one – because the right tools and protocols haven’t been developed. Human beings are uniquely complicated, after all, and the outcomes of any particular intervention could be long distant and linked to a set of experiences and services that are interconnected. Benefits to clients can be real without being documentable, and ignoring that fact won’t help anyone in the end.
  • Fairly narrow ‘suitability’ criteria. PFS is one financial tool of several, and it only makes sense under particular conditions. Despite the almost palpable excitement about the model among providers and policy wonks alike, it may well be the case that only a minority of social service providers should even consider it. For one thing, by its very nature PFS can only support prevention programs, because those are the programs that, if done right, can produce large cost savings down the line. PFS-funded programs must be replicable and scalable, and capable ultimately of reaching large numbers of people. Most important of all, providers interested in PFS should already have clear and compelling evidence that their approach works. While investors vary in their motives and their tolerance of risk, none will happily lose their money, which is what will happen if program outcomes aren’t met. Proving to investors that your program will be successful isn’t a small thing, and you can’t do it on the fly. An intense orientation toward evaluation must already be ingrained in organizational culture; playing catch-up in hopes of attracting PFS investors won’t work.
  • Conducting PFS-funded projects can be difficult in ways that providers don’t anticipate. PFS projects can be taxing for social service providers, who under this financial scheme must focus single-mindedly on outcomes and the various processes and software packages that document them, sometimes to the exclusion of the more human work they’d rather be doing. Not all providers will find the trade-off worth it.
  • PFS involves risks to providers as well as to investors. Many social service providers are happy with the current system. Being paid a certain amount per client to provide a certain service is good enough. They feel their service works for their clients, and perhaps even know it works, anecdotally and through whatever data they’re already required to collect. Their public funders are satisfied, their clients seem satisfied, so why risk their program by developing intense numerical goals that perhaps they don’t end up meeting?
  • Government complacence. For that matter, many government bureaucrats are satisfied with the current compliance regime as well, or at least used to it. Pay for Success can feel enormously complicated, not least because the funding silo that pays for a prevention program may not be the same one that reaps savings down the road. And, as we all know, programs are often funded regardless of the evidence for them. That is to say, evidence matters, but politics usually matters more, making the whole evidence-based enterprise feel a little creaky. Which services require the intense focus of PFS, and which ones are protected from intense focus? This question would become particularly important if PFS moves beyond discretionary public spending (a relatively small slice of the budget pie) and into entitlement spending.
  • Perverse incentives. No one on the panel mentioned it, but I wonder if, with so much money on the line, clients may get pushed to the finish line too soon or be deemed “successful” too hastily. As one Utah resident skeptically noted in a newspaper article on that state’s early education PFS project, gains made by children in pre-K enrichment programs often disappear after a year or two. Is “success” a single-point-in-time determination, or up for reconsideration as time goes on?

Future Directions

Dozens of additional PFS projects are in some stage of development, and policy folks are watching them closely for new lessons. They’re developing toolkits, sponsoring webinars, and fielding questions from interested nonprofits. As they themselves point out, much will go right, but much may go wrong as well, as PFS grows and evolves. There is a great deal of work to be done in making PFS more than a boutique funding approach. The Urban Institute panel identified two important tasks:

  • Search for new ways to produce evidence of outcomes. Randomized controlled trials are expensive and time-consuming. Building knowledge about outcomes must necessarily fold in other kinds of less-expensive data, such as data automatically collected when former clients use public services or enroll in entitlement programs down the line. But there are inevitable privacy issues in mining this kind of data, and no one’s figured out a way past them quite yet.
  • Develop a tiered-evidence PFS project paradigm, so that incubator projects that are promising but lack solid evidence still have a chance at being funded. A second tier might involve projects that have been highly successful with a particular subpopulation and or in a single place but that must be proven with larger groups or in different locations.

There’s a lot to learn about Pay for Success and its suitability for any given provider and project. Read more at the Nonprofit Finance Fund and the Urban Institute. The Urban Institute is hosting a free webinar to potential PFS applicants on Oct. 27.

~ Melanie Reisinger Wilson, YC Research Director

Posted in evaluation, funding, news, organizational development, uncategorized

Cultural Humility in Hawaii


A Youth Thrive group exercise, Honolulu, 2015.

In July, I went to Honolulu to lead a Youth Thrive training for 14 youth-service providers under the auspices of the Hawaii Youth Services Network. The providers were an amazingly diverse group. They worked with young people between the ages of 7 and 24 in middle and high schools; in reproductive health programs; and in programs for runaway and homeless youth. Among the group was someone from every Hawaiian island and three from Saipan, the largest island of the Northern Marianas.

If you’ve ever brushed up against the US Census, you know that these folks are collectively known as “Pacific Islanders.” So they’re one race, ethnicity, and culture, right? Wrong. Well, they’re essentially the same, right? Wrong.

What this training really drove home for me was how many subcultures exist within our large demographic constructs. And that’s just what demographic umbrellas are: a construct, something we make up for our own convenience. (Anybody want to weigh in on what “the white community” thinks about Donald Trump? Or what “the American community” thinks about the current refugee crisis in Eastern Europe? If you’re white or American, you know those very questions are nonsensical.) Which is why, in Hawaii, without doubt the most ethnically diverse of all American states, social service providers talk about the importance of being “culturally humble.”

Making genuine connections with young people is the basis for doing any successful work with them — as a teacher in a school, as a nurse in a health clinic, as a youthworker on the street. And no genuine connection can happen if you assume, consciously or otherwise, that your culture makes more sense than theirs.

In Youth Thrive, we combine the most recent findings of adolescent neuroscience with four decades of accrued knowledge about approaches that work — really work — to help young people realize their full potential. Youth Thrive teaches us that it’s not about changing them;  it’s about changing ourselves so that we can truly, finally “meet them where they’re at.”

Cultural humility is part of that, a change we impose on ourselves so that we can see the young people in our lives without judgment.

At the end of the three days, Claudia ‘Lala’ Fernandez (who is Director of Programs  Boys & Girls Club of Hawaii-Leeward), helped us close by arranging us in a circle. Circles, she explained to me later, symbolize the equal respect we shared and the bonds we had created during three days of work. She asked each of us to share the makana (gift) that we would take back home with us, and to offer our ko’okupu–our intention to nurture the gift back home, so it takes root and grows.

Finally, she thanked each one of us in Hawaiian, ending with this benediction: ‘Olelo no’eau, a’ohe pau ka ‘ike i ka halau ho’okahi,’ which means that not all knowledge is taught in one school or place. Another reminder of what we gain when we are humble and assume others may know something we don’t.

 ~ Cindy Carraway-Wilson, Youth Catalytics Director of Training


Posted in news, organizational development, promising practices, trainings, uncategorized